Design as Collective Imaginary

Imagination as a faculty of invention, precisely during the technoscientific age, proves likely to make intuitive what did not exist at the time of its representation...which consisted first of all of what one today calls dreams, i.e. fictions issued from the speculations of reason.
— Bernard Stiegler, “Technoscience and Reproduction”, 2007

Design can be broken down into a pair of essential questions: how do you perceive the world around you, and what character do you play within that world?

An extended history of design proves that the answers to these questions have fluctuated enormously over time, varying between the socially-embedded craftsman, the virtuosic artisan under the patronage of a monarch, the engineer of modern artillery for global warfare, the inventor of cheap mass-market objects, and more.

More recently, the proliferation of typologies of design—the conceptual, the critical, or the speculative, to name just a few—suggests that the designer’s search for urgency, impact, and survival is a perpetual condition in this volatile field of cultural production. This search leads them back to the original questions: urgency depends on how one reads their contemporary context; impact is a function of one’s personal tactics and relations; and survival is determined by the clash between worldviews and characters. As in politics or on the battlefield, the struggle for success in design is not a matter of objective fact, but the unfolding of multiple imaginaries in real time.

In that sense, designers are crucial to society’s evolution. However, to study design is to confront an inherent conflict of power, ethics, and individual responsibility. In an economy that rewards innovation for its own sake, that gives the commons to the first one to claim them, that blithely ignores the fallout from the increasingly inaccessible fortresses of wealth—the designer has several options. They may retreat into their own private dreams or fears, using design to furnish that speculative universe; they may declare a universal state of emergency and offer groundbreaking patented solutions; or they may unleash their techno-utopian fantasies to disrupt the status quo.

What is missing in these scenarios is a sense of a collective imaginary—not the tunnel-vision of a strategic plan to conquer others and amass resources and energies, but the emergent patterns that can be observed amidst multiple creative minds. Each designer works from the perspective of the unique mixture of facts, biases, blind spots, and hallucinations that they call reality, but by looking deeply into their ideas and prototypes as a larger body of work, we can uncover the hopes, assumptions, and fears of a generation. We may also find that it is necessary to fictionalise reality—to exaggerate underlying forces, ignore limiting factors, and suspend disbelief—to begin to design in the first place.

By taking a set of design projects as a found archive from a possible future, we are confronted with our agency—as makers, users, mentors, students, performers, viewers, and members of the community—to work together towards the fictional universe(s) that we have chosen, debated, iterated, and invested with our beliefs. As Bernard Stiegler claims in his 2007 essay “Technoscience and Reproduction”, the “principle of subjective differentiation”—of making difficult choices without relying on religion, law, science, or optimising algorithms—”would consist...in a faculty of judging the quality of technoscientific fictions...The question that technoscience expressly intimates to us, which it expressly intimates such that we intend as the possibility and necessity of a We so as to project ourselves as an I, is: what do we want?”

These words were written in the same year that the world economy collapsed, the first iPhone was launched, Keeping Up with the Kardashians premiered on television, and design visionary Ettore Sottsass passed away. In the twelve years since then, the world has become populated by innumerable single-occupancy utopias and “separate but equal” dystopias. Today, we must work to envision and instigate our future world(s), and the characters we play within them, as a communal venture of design and more.

The 2019 Design Academy Eindhoven graduation show is based on eight worldviews and five design characters, which act as points of commonality around which bachelor’s and master’s projects gather. These worldviews and characters were developed through close reading of and interaction with the graduation projects as a total body of work: common themes and shared methods were identified across department boundaries, and each set of projects sparked a vision of a shared universe to which they all belonged. Though each project is the creation of a single author, their shared hypotheses and assumptions work as a collective—whether through conscious discussion or simply by occupying the same building or living under the same geopolitical conditions. At the same time, the boundaries between worlds and characters are fluid, and many projects resonate across multiple worlds or characters.

From 120 bachelor’s projects, eight distinct worlds emerge. Landscape Amnesia faces the disappearance of cultural memory from our surroundings; the Unknown Caller is a precarious worker who tries to live a normal life inside a call centre; Training Set revolves around an AI that is learning to be a flawed, complicated human; Seven Continents, One Ocean explores the society living in the global waterscape where international law is a mere formality, whereas The Scavengers survive as gleaners in wastelands of trash, the only truly renewable resource. In Hidden Publics, a subculture of shadows and subterfuge is the last resistance in increasingly policed and surveilled urban spaces, while The Guests retreat from the toxic dystopia of the present into therapeutic oases to maximise their potential selves; finally, Channel Eight draws politicians, entertainers, entrepreneurs, and citizens into an intricate economy of influence.

In parallel, the 62 master’s projects model five different characters, each one a distinct typology of designer who will inhabit and, in turn, shape these worlds. The Performer uses their own body and presence as a material or tool to achieve a specific programme; the Critical Observer analyses from a distance, using theory as a surgical instrument to dissect contemporary culture; the Material Appropriator dives into the mess of reality to extract the primary matter for their process; the Situated Agent embed themselves within their chosen context in order to experience and participate from within; and the Empath abstains from the simplistic logic of problem-solving and instead applies design as a way of understanding and giving voice to the community most implicated by the subject at hand.

With its 2019 graduation show, the Design Academy Eindhoven seeks to acknowledge and foster the critical contemplations and richly textured possibilities encapsulated within each final project, while also encouraging graduates, visitors, and the larger design community to recognise the points where our dreams, anxieties, and aims intersect. Where design fictions rely on individual authorship and protective ownership, they can be no more than a dream; but where they coalesce into collective imaginaries, they solidify into a potential reality—one among many possible futures, but the only one that we have designed by choice.